In November, voters in South Dakota will be voting on a rewrite of the state’s campaign finance laws known as Initiated Measure 22. With its strict regulations on campaign contribution disclosures, supporters are selling the law as an anti-corruption measure.
However, the most curious aspect of the proposed law is its provision for a publicly funded campaign finance program.
Dubbed with the Orwellian-sounding name of “Democracy Credits”, Measure 22 would create a program whereby the state government would send every resident of the state two fifty-dollar vouchers at the beginning of the year. Residents could then give these vouchers to any candidate or campaign that they wish. However, the program does not come without some serious caveats.
Candidates who choose to participate in the program will be severely limited in the size of the contributions that they can collect outside the voucher program. Candidates for the state assembly would be limited to collecting no more than $250 per contributor from non-Democracy Credit sources, while statewide candidates would be limited to $500 per contributor. Additionally, the program severely restricts the ability of candidates to spend their own money on their own campaigns. The measure permits statewide candidates to contribute or lend only $2000 to their campaigns, while legislative candidates are limited to a mere $1000.
To put those numbers in perspective, consider that in the 2014 gubernatorial race, the winning Republican ticket raised $3,123,327 from 2714 individual donors, PACs, and other campaigns. If that campaign opted to participate in the Democracy Credit program, it would have had to find 5206 donors who were willing to contribute both of their $50 Democracy Credits and who were also willing to max-out at the statutory limit of $500.
Given the above, it is unclear what incentive a campaign would have to participate in such a program. No campaign is going to burden itself willingly with such restrictions when it can raise the same amount of money outside the program with half the effort. In addition to the contribution limits, the proposed law also creates a lot of extra paperwork surrounding the proper receipt and redemption of the credits.
Indeed, the only campaigns likely to be attracted by this program are those with very small or non-existent bases of financial support, and as experience has frequently shown, campaigns without some base of financial support are not likely to have much popular support.
While there is certainly a spirited debate to be had about whether the government should be in the business of funding political campaigns, it certainly should not be in the business of funding only losing political campaigns.
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